April 6, 2017 / 4:01 AM / 4 months ago

Australia, PNG to discuss future of controversial asylum seeker camp

FILE PHOTO: Security fences can be seen near trees inside the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, February 11, 2017. Behrouz Boochani/Handout viaFile Photo

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The future of an Australia's controversial asylum-seeker detention center in Papua New Guinea will be discussed during a two-day visit by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to the Pacific island nation starting Friday.

Australia is under pressure from human rights groups and the United Nations to close its two Pacific island detention centers, which have been widely criticized for cramped conditions, inadequate medical care and violence.

The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled last year that the country's Manus island detention center should close, forcing Australia and its Pacific island ally to confirm it would close the camp during 2017.

"The primary reason for Turnbull's visit is to discuss economic prospects but the topic of Manus island will be addressed too," a source familiar with the visit told Reuters on Thursday.

Turnbull's trip to Papua New Guinea comes a day after he met with Baron Waqa, the president of Nauru, and thanked him for hosting Australia's second detention center in the Pacific.

Waga later met Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to discuss the future of Nauru after the detention center closes, though no timetable was given for the closure.

"We want to look at the economic opportunities for Nauru post the regional processing center," Bishop said at a meeting Waqa in Sydney.

Australia has a strict policy of not allowing anyone who tries to reach the country by boat to settle there, instead detaining them in the Pacific camps, where asylum claims processing can take years, and even if they are found to be genuine refugees they are still barred from Australia.

Australia agreed with former U.S. President Barack Obama late last year for the United States to resettle up to 1,250 asylum seekers held in the Australian-funded camps. In return, Australia would resettle refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Any person not settled will be given the choice of residency in PNG or a 20-year visa on Nauru.

Turnbull's visit to Papua New Guinea will overlap that of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which begun collecting biometric information of some of the near 900 men held on Manus Island earlier this week.

U.S. officials collected similar information from asylum seekers on Nauru late last month, a move that reassured observers that despite U.S. President Trump describing the asylum seeker deal with Australia as "dumb", the deal was at this stage proceeding.

After leaving Papua New Guinea, Turnbull will travel to India where he will seek to advance trade between the two countries. Trade between Australia and India was worth nearly A$20 billion ($15.08 billion) last year and both nations hope to accelerate it with a free trade agreement.

($1 = 1.3266 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry

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